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'Loving' Shows A Quiet Couple In The Eye Of History's Storm

Before I talk about the new historical film Loving from writer/director Jeff Nichols, I have to confess: I don't usually enjoy civil rights movies.

Don't get me wrong, as a descendant of slaves, I fully appreciate the civil rights movement itself. It's just a tough genre to pull off artistically. It's far too easy for these films to succumb to chin-to-the-sky self-righteous squinting at the heavens. What many films based on historical events lack is the uncertainty of the moment they're trying to reproduce — the doubt of outcome, the insecurity about the effectiveness of the strategy being utilized.

As the son of a white father and black mother, the event of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark case that made interracial marriage legal across the country, has immediate resonance. I was born only three years after the 1967 decision. It would be 20 years before I would even hear the word "biracial," and another 20 years before I saw someone who fit that description ascend to the presidency.

For many mixed people of my generation and after, Mildred and Richard Loving's legal victory is the defining moment of the modern interracial era. We even have a holiday in their honor, Loving Day, which uses their incredibly apt name and celebrates the legal and social acceptance of mixed race people and families.

Mat Johnson is the author of the novels <a href="http://www.npr.org/books/titles/408585487/loving-day" target="_blank">Loving Day</a><em> </em>and <a href="http://www.npr.org/books/titles/137872346/pym" target="_blank">Pym</a>. He teaches at the University of Houston's creative writing program.
/ Meera Bowman Johnson
Meera Bowman Johnson
Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Loving Day and Pym. He teaches at the University of Houston's creative writing program.

Given the completeness with which the Lovings won their historical moment — and their victory's symbolic impact not just on race, but as a harbinger for the same-sex marriage battle decades later — a cinematic portrayal of the events risks the potential potholes of recreating recent history. It's a story in which the opposition has already been thoroughly discredited by time, and the outcome of the characters' lives assured by history.

Loving avoids these potholes by simply and elegantly flying far, far over them. Loving isn't a movie about a landmark civil rights case; it's a movie about two people who fall in love, get married, start a family and just want to do all that in their rural Virginia hometown. Loving is as much about the contrast between the quiet pastoral — beautifully rendered in 35 mm by cinematographer Adam Stone — and the loud and chaotic urban landscape of Washington, D.C., to which this reserved family is exiled.

Ruth Negga, star of TV's Preacher, continues to show her range in her subtle, quiet portrayal of Mildred. It's a performance that's matched perfectly by Joel Edgerton, whose Richard is a muted man whose lack of words doesn't represent the magnitude of his emotions. They are the silence, while the rest of the world roars.

Loving doesn't waste time giving a history of the unions and marriages of African- and European-Americans going back to the 17th century. In fact, the entire discussion of race in the film is pushed out of the room for as long as it can be, mirroring the choices of the couple themselves. It's a non-issue until it comes back for both the characters and the viewer, in an unavoidable fog seeping in under the door.

This graceful sidestepping of America's issues with miscegenation — interracial marriage, sex or procreation — allows the humanity of the Loving family to take center stage, and forces their legal battle to be seen through that context.

Ultimately, what we see is that Mildred and Richard Loving were not the focus of the Loving v. Virginia story or of their historic moment — stories need conflict, and in regards to the issue of race this couple has none. The real story is that it took so long for a good portion of America to acknowledge legally the simple, benign reality of their love.

The movie Loving reminds us of this by giving us an intimate portrayal of a quiet couple who find themselves in the eye of history's storm. The thunder of American racial anxiety rumbling, threatening, in the distance.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Mat Johnson